Sunday , May 26 2019
Home / Women Careers / 7 Ways To Challenge Assumptions To Drive Diversity And Innovation From Microsoft

7 Ways To Challenge Assumptions To Drive Diversity And Innovation From Microsoft

Look around the coffee shop or office you’re in right now.  I bet you could guess each person’s story. Maybe there’s a recent college grad looking for their first job in a startup, or one about to interview for a job at a law firm. Maybe there’s an entrepreneur negotiating a deal, a struggling musician getting caffeine before their evening bartending job, or two people sharing stories about their kids or recent dates.

Usually those guesses are wrong. The torn jeans and nose-ring could adorn a highly-accomplished lawyer who isn’t in court that day, for example, or the corporate suit might wrap someone working on their startup.

These are also the kind of assumptions that could hinder the development of innovative solutions and that block diversity efforts.  That’s why assumptions are one of Microsoft’s “10 Inclusive Behaviors” that need to be addressed to recruit, retain and promote more women and minorities, and those with unusual career backgrounds.

Every Person Has A Role

Every person in the company ne to choose one of the 10 to focus on for themselves, even the top executives, Mary Snapp, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President and head of Microsoft Philanthropies, told me when I interviewed her last week at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce  in Washington, DC at an International Women’s Day event.  She chose “assumptions” (she was executive sponsor of the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts and of Women@Microsoft).

The tech industry is perpetually and rapidly innovating, which requires challenging the status quo, and “crazy” ideas, which both come from having new voices and a mix of skillsets at the table.  Assumptions can kill those new ideas and discourage those new voices.

Each of us walks into a room carrying assumptions all the time.  Some help us prepare and are based on knowledge.  Regardless, we need to notice the assumptions we’re making and allow for them to be wrong, especially if we want to drive innovation.

These assumptions can also block promotions and assignments.  For example, Patsy Doerr, head of Global Diversity, Sustainability and Inclusion at Thomson Reuters, told me that when she was leaving a performance review one time, she told her boss, “Don’t eliminate me for an overseas assignment because I have small children at home.”  A few weeks later he offered her a great opportunity in Hong Kong (which she took).

The Necessity of Diversity to Drive Innovation – How to Get There

Microsoft’s entire workforce of about 90,000 is currently 25.9% women, with women in only 19.9% of tech jobs and 19.7% of leadership roles.  These statistics mirror the computer science field, according to 2018 research by Dice and Bustle referenced this week at a National Academy of Sciences conference on women in STEM, and reflect a decline of women in the field from a high of 32% in 1990.  That decline is even more surprising considering that “Seven out of the ten largest STEM occupations were computer related,” according to a 2017 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To increase the diversity of their workforce, Microsoft is even challenging their long-held assumption that all jobs there require a college degree, Snapp told me.  As long as they show a strong “growth mindset, a “willingness to try new things,” and appropriate training or experience that shows they can do the job, maybe they don’t need a college degree.

Snapp said Microsoft is highly focused on increasing every aspect of diversity in their workforce to maximize the company’s ability to innovate: gender, race, experience, education/training, age, background and skillset. Here are other steps she told me they’re taking:

Encouraging leaders to show their own vulnerabilities and talk about their own failures, to breed a culture where everyone feels comfortable, and is not afraid to experiment and take risks, knowing you’ll fail sometimes. “If you’re not failing, you’re not taking risks. If you’re not taking risks, you’re not innovating, “ Snapp explained.
Training hiring managers in how to make people feel comfortable and how to ask questions.
Helping hiring managers identify attitude and other necessary qualifications, as well as hard skills. Hard skills can often be taught, but initiative, values and attitude cannot.  Focusing on seeking that “growth mindset,” rather than on traditional credentials.

“It would be a mistake to think that computer scientists only need to know how to code,” Snapp said, “because…ethics and privacy issues are so important. (Therefore) understanding a little bit about history and humanity will be really important as we move into these new technologies” such as artificial intelligence.

Closely examining exactly what qualifications and language they include in job descriptions, in addition to questioning if every job requires a college degree. For example, they are reducing use of language such as, “must have” and “requires excellent,” or military-oriented language (such as, “conquer” or “ninja”), because it often discourages women from applying.
Requiring that hiring managers have a diverse set of candidates for every job at every level in the process.
Putting hiring managers through unconscious bias training.
Embracing the multi-generational, multicultural nature of their workforce.  This is where making each employee commit to dealing with one of the 10 inclusive behaviors in themselves is critical.

There are other steps Microsoft is taking according to their website, including tying executive compensation to diversity goals, and specific recruitment outreach programs.

Maybe now when they go into that coffee shop they’ll see the people there through a new lens. I know I will.

Snapp’s advice to women who want a fulfilling career in innovative companies, including in computer science?

“Be willing to do something where you don’t know what the outcome is going to be….Have confidence in yourself that whatever happens, good or bad, you’ll figure it out.”

That’s good advice for teams innovating new technologies and solutions too.